Despite my best efforts to persuade Bill Cowher into coaching the Jets, he turned me down. The money and challenge just were not enough. Cowher enjoyed the stress-free and low time commitment of broadcasting on CBS. I, Woody Johnson, will now have to turn my attention elsewhere. Now it is time to find a second choice.
There are still intriguing possibilities abounding. Marty Schottenheimer is rumored to want back into coaching. He has had nothing but success as a head man. Jim Schwartz has done a great job running the Tennessee defense. Steve Spagnuolo is considered the hot coordinator in football, understands New York, and has a track record of confounding Bill Belichick. Any of these guys is qualified. However, my next target is Rex Ryan.
Ryan is the son of former NFL defensive coordinator and head coach Buddy Ryan. Buddy Ryan is best known for his dominant defenses with the Bears, including his vaunted 1985 unit, one of the best in league history. Less known is the fact Ryan was defensive coordinator on the Super Bowl III Champion Jets and devised the gameplan that stifled the heavily favored Baltimore Colts.
The apple has not fallen far from the tree so to speak. Rex Ryan has been the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens for four years. His unit has ranked in the top five in the league in terms of yardage allowed in three of his four seasons and was sixth in the other year.
His track record of success in administrating the unit is not the only reason I want him. The son of a coach, Ryan has breathed football since he was a kid. He has worked with and learned both 4-3 and 3-4 systems. His hybrid scheme uses elements of both in addition to his father’s 46 defense. This flexibility allows Ryan to maximize the strengths of his unit, opposed to Eric Mangini’s square peg in round hole 3-4 of 2006 and 2007. Rex has come up with some of the most innovative schemes in football over the past four years. This might be the one guy capable of X’ing and O’ing with Bill Belichick. He is relentlessly aggressive. The passivity of the schemes devised during the Mangini Era are a thing of the past. I want a coach who trusts his players and is unafraid to take big risks.
In addition to his acumen, Ryan’s players love him. He was the choice in the locker room to take the head job after Brian Billick’s dismissal in Baltimore a year ago. He listens to the input of his players. Ray Lewis is on record discussing how much he loves playing for Ryan. Two of the most important responsibilities of a head man are bringing together a locker room and developing coherent strategies. Ryan has displayed ability to do both. For these reasons, I court the highly-regarded Ryan just as hard as I did Cowher.
Ryan will presumably still want input with his defense, but his responsibilities running the team will take much of the day to day work away from him. It will be essential to find a defensive coordinator with whom he is comfortable and shares a similar philosophy. This guy cannot mind implementing Ryan’s diverse schemes. A logical choice to some would be his brother, Rob, the current Raiders defensive coordinators. Rob Ryan has run both the 3-4 and the 4-3 in Oakland so he is not married to one scheme. However, there are major issues. Rob Ryan’s defense was on the bottom third of the league in Oakland in four of his five years there. There are also differing defensive philosophies between the brothers. While Rex was continuously aggressive in Baltimore, Rob’s Oakland defenses blitzed sparingly. These units were designed to read and react and bend but don’t break. Given these issues and the natural fears nepotism bring, I talk Rex out of making this move.
The guy we target instead is Ron Rivera. Rivera is a familiar name to Rex. He played in Chicago under his father. Rivera passes the comfort test. He also will not have any problem being adaptable. He played in the Ryan 46 scheme. He learned as a coach in Jim Johnson’s blitzing 4-3. He ran Lovey Smith’s 4-3 Tampa 2 in Chicago and has since taken over San Diego’s 3-4. Everywhere he has gone, the constant has been success.
He was highly regarded enough in Philly to land the coordinator job with the Bears. In Chicago, his dominating unit gained recognition as one of the league’s best and got that club to the Super Bowl even with Rex Grossman playing quarterback. Since taking over San Diego’s 3-4 for Ted Cottrell halfway through the season, the Chargers have been one of the top ten defenses in the league after a hideous start. Rivera has never been a scheme guy. His success has been reinforcing fundamentals such as tackling technique and understanding assignments. He will not mind it if Ryan is hands on in the design of the defense. His contract with the Chargers is up at the end of the season. I have the money to make him come to New York, and will persuade him that success as a coordinator in a third stop will make his ultimate dream of landing a head job that much more attainable.
Now we need to find an offensive architect. Since Rex’s specialty is defense, we will need to find somebody who can create a coherent offensive attack and completely oversee it. After discussing many names, we settle on a target, Philadelphia Eagles offensive assistant Mark Whipple. Whipple may not be a household name, but he has a loaded resume. He was a very successful head coach on the college level, compiling nothing but good results at New Haven, Brown, and UMass, where he built a national power and won a Division 1-AA National Championship. Since leaving UMass, he served as quarterback coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2004 to 2006. He has been given enormous credit for his work developing Ben Roethlisberger. Under his mentorship, Roethlisberger had great success incredibly early in his career, taking Pittsburgh to the AFC Championship Game in his rookie year and winning the Super Bowl a season later. His tutelage will be a major benefit for whichever young quarterback starts in 2009, whether it is Kellen Clemens, Erik Ainge, or Brett Ratliff.
Whipple had a reputation as an offensive innovator while coaching in college. His system, known as “The Whiplash” was a modified West Coast offense that utilized exotic formations and relentlessly attacked opposing defenses. Whipple has also been exposed to the Steelers’ power running game and Andy Reid’s conventional West Coast offense. Given his X’s and O’s knowledge and experience, he will be able to develop a unique offense that will give opponents fits. Unlike Brian Schottenheimer’s unique sets that say, “Look at what I can do! I can’t believe I get to run an NFL offense!” a professional like Whipple will look for innovative ways of attack that will maximize his unit’s productivity. Ironically, the former Steelers assistant would have been a major candidate to fill the role had Cowher accepted the job.
Although I missed out on the proven commodity in Cowher, I am thrilled to land one of the rising coaching stars in the game. Instead of hiring a legend, I might create a homegrown one.